On a recent hot, muggy evening, Katie Hall’s hands, legs and feet were covered in mud as she watered and pulled weeds in the Community and Learning Garden near Free State High School.
Sweat was trickling down her face.
The FSHS senior is among four students who spend at least two hours a day working in a huge garden, which is full of plants that are about to produce food or already have.
“Check out this watermelon,” Katie said enthusiastically.
There’s also corn, banana peppers, jalapeño peppers, butternut squash, zucchini, eggplant, cantaloupe and cucumbers growing in the first-year garden. Soon, there could be tons of tomatoes.
Katie is quick to admit that they planted too many tomato plants and too close together. It’s just one of many lessons that she’s learned from the project.
“It’s kind of messy,” she said about the garden. “When I look out and see all of the weeds, I’m like, ‘Oh, my God,’ but everything’s still alive and that’s good, considering these hot, dry conditions.”
Katie’s mother, Susan, and fellow student gardener Christy Wagner soon join Katie in tackling the weeding and watering.
“For a first-year garden, I think it is doing absolutely fantastic,” Susan said. “I think it gives these girls a way to really see the fruits of a garden. The rows aren’t perfect, and, yes, there are weeds in it, but it shows them how hard the work really is.”
Maintaining the 60-by-60-foot plot has been quite an undertaking for just four FSHS students, which includes Kayla Gore and Cheyenne Patton. Besides planting, weeding, watering and harvesting the school garden, they also help supervise four nearby garden plots that are being grown by members of the community.
Laura Priest, who oversees the student gardeners as agricultural education teacher and FFA sponsor, commends the girls for their accomplishments.
“These girls have really stepped up and blown my expectations away, and I love how they hold each other accountable,” she said. “Now, it may not be the prettiest garden in Lawrence, but it is a garden that is producing.”
The school district is paying minimum wage for each student to work between 15 and 20 hours a week. But the girls have been volunteering even more time than that.
Patrick Kelly, fine arts and career and technical education specialist for the Lawrence school district, has helped with the garden project since the planning stages. He said they “way underbudgeted” the number of hours needed to work in the garden.
It’s just one of many things that he and other community members involved with the project are learning.
“We’ve had some growing pains, but that’s part of the learning process,” he said.
Kelly said those involved in the garden project met Friday to figure out what they’ve learned and what they can do better and differently.
So far, the garden has been funded through a $6,000 grant from LiveWell Lawrence and another $6,000 in funds from the district. The money helped pay for a new waterline, tools, plants and other items.
Kelly said they hope to get business partners involved so they can build a fence and make the garden more attractive.
“It hasn’t been perfect,” he said of the project, “But we are learning from that to make it even better.”
The students have been selling the produce to friends and family, and on Friday sold some to FSHS staff. They hope to have a community market of some sort in the near future.
Of course, the students’ ultimate goal is to see their produce in the school cafeteria this fall.